An Unlikely Gunman
Originally published in the Scotsman.
The recent shooting spree at Northern Illinois University has left me shaken. Not because I’m from Illinois, but because the shooter was a 27-year-old former sociology postgraduate student. Next month, I will be a 27-year-old sociology postgraduate student.
Any display of violence is disturbing, but the sociology connection seems to make this one particularly gruesome. Sociologists are supposed to be the ones examining things like this, explaining the troubling social phenomena, making sense of a seemingly chaotic social world. Whether we’re supposed to feel numb and detached and “objective,” or whether it tears our souls apart to see the hideous injustice of the world, sociologists make the chaos that little bit more orderly. Sociologists are not supposed take guns into universities and kill people.
Of course, the violence most likely had nothing to do with sociology. It was probably the farthest thing from the killer’s mind. But that doesn’t change the fact that he had studied it. To destroy the lives of other human beings having studied the bonds that hold us together, having studied our common humanity… That’s what horrifies me the most.
According to news reports, the killer was a good student who was interested in social justice and fair treatment in the prison system. After studying sociology at Northern Illinois, he transferred to a social work course at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Some of my friends speculate that looking too closely at humanity’s dark side might have pushed him over the edge. And while I understand the despair that can arise from studying social injustice, I just can’t wrap my head around the kind of moral calculation that says becoming a mass-murderer would somehow correct or negate or appropriately retaliate for the world’s injustice.
Most reports suggest that the killer’s rampage was a result of him ceasing to take his medication, implying that it was a simple matter of a “disturbed individual” venting aggression on innocent bystanders. This kind of explanation also seems incomplete. There are plenty of depressed, disturbed, and even psychotic individuals in this world. Most of them do not go on shooting sprees. There are plenty of stressed-out students overwhelmed by the pressures of university life. Most do not unleash their frustrations through murder. So what could have caused this student to snap?
We’ll probably never know for sure, but brushing off some individuals as “disturbed” or “evil” ignores what is obviously a deep-rooted cultural problem in America. From Virginia to Louisiana to Colorado – and now Illinois – young people have seen fit to murder their classmates in deadly shooting sprees. The inevitable bickering over gun laws, while understandable, ignores the deeper questions about American culture that might shed some light on these tragedies.
One thought-provoking explanation comes from Mark Ames, author of Going Postal, a study of workplace and school violence in America. In an article on the news website AlterNet, Ames suggests that recent university shootings grow out of the hopelessness and “existential terror” experienced in middle America. In a culture that worships big winners, there is little consolation for those who carve out mediocre lives, numbed by anti-depressants and consumerism. While the full picture of the latest gunman’s life remains hazy, the broad strokes suggest that he occupied “a very familiar, flat sort of American Hell.”
This kind of explanation, combined with the others, does not excuse the killer’s reprehensible actions – but it does take us closer to understanding them. It’s a dark sort of irony that leaves sociologists to find order in the chaos wrought by one of their own.